African Coups Upset March of Democracy

Some Say Setbacks May Be Temporary, Cite Rise of Civil Societies Amid Upheavals

By James Rupert
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 29, 1997

The past month's street fights for power in three African capitals underscore that this continent's saluted post-Cold War transition from authoritarian rule toward democracy remains at an early, embattled stage.

Pillars of smoke have risen over the capitals of the Congo Republic, Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic. Bands of men have fired rifles and rockets in and out of government buildings, declaring their right to rule. Westerners have rushed to pack suitcases and flee, sometimes amid rattling gunfire and the shouts of U.S. or French troops evacuating them in military helicopters or cargo planes.

Images televised worldwide give the appearance of an Africa where democracy is doomed. Each of the capital cities shattered by recent uprisings -- Sierra Leone's Freetown and Central African Republic's Bangui, as well as Brazzaville in the Congo Republic, which lies across the Congo River from the former Zaire -- not long ago was celebrating its first multi-party election and civilian leader after long periods of single-party and military rule.

But alongside such dramatic setbacks, democracy in Africa is evolving in ways that are less visible but more basic, many Africans and Western observers say. Across the continent, even in countries still under authoritarian rule, people are building civil societies and raising pressure for rule by consent of the governed. Even in the capitals that have fallen under the gun this month, swelling networks of human rights committees, church groups, labor, business and professional associations have been insistently voicing popular aspirations.

"Despite recent events . . . significant improvement in political stability and the shift to democracy have underpinned social peace in much of Africa, encouraging the participation of civil society in the development process, and strengthening the legitimacy of governments," Callisto Madavo and Jean-Louis Sarbib, vice presidents of the World Bank, wrote this week in the daily International Herald Tribune.

Africa in the 1990s has made its strongest moves ever toward democratic rule -- most prominently in South Africa's euphoric elevation of Nelson Mandela from prisoner to president. Ghana, Mali, Benin, Mozambique and other countries have won praise for fair elections and broadened civil liberties. But the trend is a patchwork. Governments in states such as Nigeria, Kenya, Gabon and Cameroon have remained repressive, according to domestic and foreign monitors, aborting or rigging their elections to keep power.

The disparate upheavals of recent weeks have startled African and Western scholars into seeking some common thread. Many ponder whether one of the most important events in recent African history -- last month's surprisingly easy overthrow of strongman Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire by rebel leader Laurent Kabila, who renamed the country Congo -- "may have sent a signal [to other Africans] that it's possible to take power militarily," said Constance Freeman, Africa specialist at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But while Kabila's victory may have provided momentary encouragement to armed men trying to take over other African states, it was orchestrated and achieved largely from the outside -- by countries like Rwanda, Uganda and Angola, which backed Kabila. The battles in Brazzaville, Freetown and Bangui, on the other hand, all spring from the deep poverty, social inequality and authoritarian political culture that dominate Africa.

The World Bank counts 45 percent of Africans living on less than $1 per day, and the United Nations' 1997 Human Development Report concludes that "the depth of poverty . . . is greater in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world." This season's uprisings, like most of Africa's ongoing conflicts, have been started by armed groups of despairing poor who see no hope of using politics to win a share of power or wealth.

African leaders -- and would-be leaders -- recruit these overwhelmingly young, poor, marginalized men to the kinds of personal militias that have been battling in Brazzaville, capital of the Congo Republic, next door to Kabila's renamed Congo. While popular pressures forced former military ruler Denis Sassou-Nguesso to hold elections in 1992 -- which he lost -- he retained his personal army, which has clashed in Brazzaville this month with troops and militiamen loyal to his elected successor, President Pascal Lissouba.

The background to fighting has been similar in the Central African Republic. A century of authoritarian rule by France and several dictators -- including the infamous Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who declared himself emperor -- has offered its people even less opportunity than other Africans to participate in the running of their country. But petitions, strikes and public rallies for democracy -- along with pressure by France, which bases troops in Bangui -- forced Gen. Andre Kolingba to permit the first free presidential elections in 1993.

The mutiny in Bangui, which raged for a week before a truce was brokered today, is the latest of several staged there by low-ranking soldiers. Like the others, it began as a protest at late paychecks but is centered on Kolingba's Yakoma tribe and may represent an effort by him or his supporters to regain power. But simultaneous with the violence, the country's democracy movement is building its base with the development of civic organizations, including a vigorous association of women lawyers and a human rights commission.

"Ten years ago, nobody would have accepted such groups," but now "there is a general recognition that they have a role to play in governance," said Chris Fomunyoh, who has worked in the country for Washington's National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.

The recent violence in African capitals "is a setback," Fomunyoh said. "And we'll have to expect [such setbacks] to continue, certainly into the next decade." In other countries, even where poverty, violence and repression are at their worst, foundations of democracy are growing. Despite continued authoritarian rule under Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi, "civil society has grown dramatically," said Maina Kiai, head of the five-year-old Kenyan Human Rights Commission. "Organized sectors of society are operating outside of government . . . to build democracy" from the bottom up, he said, and "broadly speaking, in Africa one sees that kind of evolution." In Kinshasa, capital of Congo, formerly known as Zaire, an independent press, human rights organizations, church commissions and opposition parties hounded Mobutu throughout the '90s, demanding democratic rule. Such groups slowly hollowed out Mobutu's political base, facilitating his overthrow this spring. Kabila has assumed sweeping powers and banned political activity, but pro-democracy groups are responding with many of the same tactics that they employed against Mobutu.

In Liberia, civil society is pulsing despite seven years of grinding factional warfare that has left much of the country living under plastic sheeting or tents or in the ruins of abandoned buildings. Ragged boys in the streets of Monrovia hawk at least a dozen daily and weekly newspapers full of debate among political parties and civic organizations. It is partly because of public demands -- especially from women, according to Liberian political monitors -- that the warlords who have fought for power now are submitting to elections scheduled for next month.

The coup d'etat in Sierra Leone has reversed, but not crushed, another of Africa's recent democratic advances. Last year, having forced a military government to hold elections, Sierra Leoneans braved gunfire from resistant soldiers and a rural rebel movement to elect a civilian president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. He named a broad government and quickly negotiated peace with the rebels.

Last month, unpaid and impoverished enlisted men mounted a revolt, and quickly were joined by the rebels, who are based in the country's most economically and politically marginalized area. But officers in the junta have conceded in interviews that opposition from the population and from African governments is forcing them to look for a negotiated way out of power.